The overseers of Hudson County’s $304 million budget are holding a road show, and on Wednesday and Thursday they made stops in Secaucus and Hoboken. The Hudson County Board of Freeholders introduced a budget last month that will cause county taxes to rise in Hoboken, Weehawken, and Secaucus, so several county departments came to the meetings to talk about how to save money. The final vote on the budget is scheduled for June 20.
The freeholders had some pointed questions for the heads of county departments. In one case, they asked why the cost of employee phone calls climbed by $700,000, and why certain county employees get their own taxpayer funded cars.
Property owners pay a rate that is determined by the budgets of three entities: the county, their school district, and their town. These hearings affect only the county budget.
Secaucus Mayor Michael Gonnelli had requested that one of the hearings be held in his town, which officials believe will be affected more than other municipalities in Hudson.
Gonnelli had held a joint press conference in Hoboken on May 7, with Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer and Weehawken Mayor Richard Turner. Those three municipalities have been hit with a vastly higher county tax rate because of new construction and tax ratables.
“It’s almost if you govern well, you get penalized,” Gonnelli said at the press conference.
As Wednesday night’s meeting opened in Secaucus, Gonnelli thanked the county officials for coming, then asked them to reduce their budget.
He urged them to “go to each and every line item in each and every department to come up with areas to cut.”
Gonnelli asked that the county cut $5 million from its budget to help his town. He said Secaucus has seen a 29.5 percent increase in its county tax levy over the last three years, and is expecting about a 10 percent rate hike this year. That translates into an additional $2.3 million in taxes for his town’s residents.
“We’ll look at all the line items, we feel the pain.” – Freeholder Chairman Anthony Romano
He reminded them that his town hosts several county facilities that are tax exempt and produce no tax revenue for Secaucus. He urged them to consider cutting from the Open Public Space program and talk about municipalities sharing services wherever possible.
“Let’s think out of the box,” he said.
Why so much money, and so many employees?
“We’ll look at all the line items, we feel the pain,” said Freeholder Chairman Anthony Romano.
“Public Safety has four different entities. Maybe we can share services there.”
During the meeting, the topics of phone bills, “turf watchers” (people paid to monitor athletic fields for trespassers), county cars and part-time versus full-time employees were all discussed.
Freeholders grilled several departments about where cuts could be made, questioning specific line items.
Freeholder William O’Dea asked Harold Demellier Jr. of the Department of Roads and Public Property, Engineering & Transportation why a department telephone bill of $1 million in 2012 went up to almost $1.7 million.
“We have to question if people are making long-distance phone calls when they shouldn’t, if the phone is connected to the internet,” he said. “We need to understand why a line item would increase by more than 50 percent in a given year.
Freeholder Albert Cifelli questioned why no alarm went off when the phone bill went up so much.
“There’s no blip on the radar, no smoking gun, no red flag?” he said.
Demellier pledged to get back to them with an answer.
O’Dea also asked about Demellier’s 270 employees, and if all the current job vacancies have to be refilled. Demellier said there are various collective bargaining agreements with unions that would be a factor if changes are made.
The electricity and gas bills of Demellier’s department were also questioned by freeholders looking for cost savings.
‘Turf watchers’ and planners
The next county official, Michelle Richardson, director of the Department of Parks and Community Services, was grilled even more by the board. The freeholders took exception to the use of “turf watchers,” employees who literally sit and monitor astro-turf athletic fields so no damage is done to them, and only allow those with permission to play on them. Lincoln Park in Jersey City, Washington Park straddling Jersey City and Union City, and Laurel Hill Park in Secaucus are among them.
“Why can’t camera operators monitor them and alert the Sheriff’s Department who are patrolling” if there are any problems, O’Dea asked. “What level of incidences have you had that it’s that much of a concern?”
The board also questioned why a workforce of part-time workers – who do not have to become full-time like seasonal workers and who do not have to be paid benefits – can’t be created.
O’Dea asked Richardson why she has a division with eight planners in it and wanted to know exactly what they do.
“I would like to be honest with you inspector; I would like to see activity logs for all these individuals,” he said. “I want to know, do we really need all these people?”
Saying that most planning is done on the municipal level, and that many municipalities contract it out to consultants, O’Dea questioned why the county cannot operate the same way.
“There are large cities that have outsourced their planning and have saved a substantial amount of money,” he said. “I’m really having trouble understanding and justifying the need for all these positions.”
Cifelli even questioned whether the county was required to have a planning board. The freeholders also asked Richardson if the position of planning aide waiting to be refilled was really necessary. She answered that “Because of [Hurricane] Sandy, there’s a focus on more planning.”
“I have not seen a single report in the seven months since the storm. I don’t know what they’re studying, what they’re planning,” O’Dea said. “I don’t see any reports from them. Can you provide us tomorrow with all plans, all documents they’ve generated in regard to Sandy?”
County cars and part-time lawyers
The Office of the County Counsel was the next to be examined. The amount of county cars given to employees for work was a bone of contention. Several individuals receive them, and O’Dea wanted to know why that was the case.
“Why wouldn’t we simply reimburse them for their legitimate travel,” he asked. “Wouldn’t that be a better approach?”
O’Dea suggested another department money saver might be hiring more part-time attorneys and less full-time ones. But County Counsel Donato Battista did not agree with that idea.
“Freeholder, if I had my preference, all my attorneys would be fulltime,” he said, “so their primary obligation would be to the county.”
In the public portion of the meeting, three citizens spoke.
The first was Russell Carbone, who asked the freeholders “to respect taxpayers and try to save as much money as possible.”
Charlene Burke of Jersey City asked that the body try to avoid touching the Open Public Space program, as officials at the meeting had earlier discussed.
“For the pennies I pay, there’s incredible improvement in parks,” she said. “I understand where the mayors come from, but there are tremendous benefits from that program.”
Freeholder Jose Munoz said the program would not go away, even if the freeholders have to cut money from it.
“I would never support eliminating the Open Public Space,” he said. Romano added that cutting money from its budget “wouldn’t be eliminating it, only postponing it.”
Larry Dicken, of the Harmon Cove section of Secaucus, said he sensed a sincere effort to reduce the county budget. But he questioned why the board would continue to roll over a $20 million-plus surplus that had been discussed earlier in the evening.
Hudson County Administrator Abraham Antun said that the county tries to “generate the surplus every year. It’s become a stable item in each budget.”
Joseph Passantino may be reached at JoePass@hudsonreporter.com.